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Review: Dido and Aeneas, staged by Sam Jacob at Shatwell Farm

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Last weekend saw an architectural take on Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas: a Sam Jacob Studio-designed staging in a Stephen Taylor-designed cowshed at Shatwell Farm

Last Saturday evening (29 September) saw the first outing of Shatwell Opera, presented by art patron-turned-architecture-collector Niall Hobhouse at his farm in Somerset. This production of Purcell’s tale of unhappy love and city building was designed by Sam Jacob and performed in a cowshed by Stephen Taylor, with scenography by American artist Matthew Day Jackson and Hobhouse.

With an architectural sample from Assemble’s Goldsmith’s Gallery and Alison and Peter Smithsons’ Obelisk standing witness up-field, the event drew an audience – including many architects – from far and wide. While the temperature dipped low enough to see your breath, the cowshed was illuminated by the warm glow of Jacob’s pavilion, modelled on Adolf Loos’s designs for a mausoleum, with artfully strewn straw bales and blankets serving for stalls.

Inside the mausoleum, Jackson worked away on a liquid light show, stalwart of 1970s psychedelic music festivals, that incorporated architectural drawings from Hobhouse’s collection, projected above the singers on a central stage. All-in-all the night’s entertainment was a heady mix, culminating in bonfires and spit-roast lamb.

The scale of Hobhouse’s ambition for Shatwell Farm was hinted at when he noted that John Christie’s Glyndebourne Opera House began life as a series of innocent recitals in the manor house at Glyndebourne before becoming a full-blown 300-seat auditorium affair. Whether or not there is an architectural grand projet ahead, the opera attracted a crowd that for an evening transformed the paths and fields into streets and squares, a bustling city for a night. 

The sense of making colonnaded farm buildings of exquisite detail, surrounding a campanile designed by the Smithsons for the centre of Siena, is enough to make a modern-day Romulus proud. As a means to probing the limits of permitted development, converting a cowshed into an opera house is inspired.

As Hobhouse writes in the programme, ‘perhaps we should be looking again at the scattered buildings and seeing instead the seeds of a small village in 50 years, or a town in a hundred – even, one day, of another Carthage? Or a place that was Carthage once?’. More than a statement of intent, the project is a study in creative hubris that asks: if you build it, will they come?

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